The Moral Value of Defiance
29 May 2016
The Defiance of Nadiya Savchenko
I don’t believe that I have ever seen a more complete or perfect expression of defiance than that on the face of Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot who was until quite recently imprisoned in Russia (and who was elected to the Ukrainian parliament during her imprisonment). This display of defiance is an appropriate opportunity to consider the nature of defiance as an emotion (specifically, a moral emotion) and its place within human life.
It is a natural human response to feel angry when confronted with obvious injustice. When that injustice is not merely observed, but involves ourselves personally, there is also a personal element to the anger. When an individual is angry for an injustice done to themselves, and is not yet defeated, but possesses the strength and the energy to persevere despite on ongoing injustice, that is defiance.
I am sure everyone reading this has had this experience to some degree; this is a universal that characterizes the human condition. This kind of defiance is a staple of classic literature; for example, we know defiance as the spirit of the protagonist of Jane Eyre:
“When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should — so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again… I must dislike those who, whatever I do to please them, persist in disliking me; I must resist those who punish me unjustly. It is as natural as that I should love those who show me affection, or submit to punishment when I feel it is deserved.”
The young friend of Jane Eyre, Helen Burns, replies:
“Heathens and savage tribes hold that doctrine, but Christians and civilised nations disown it.”
When published Jane Eyre was considered something of a scandal, and Matthew Arnold (of “Sweetness and Light” fame) said of the novel, “…the writer’s mind contains nothing but hunger, rebellion and rage and therefore that is all she can, in fact, put in her book.” Another Victorian critic wrote, “…the tone of mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre.” (Elizabeth Rigby, The London Quarterly Review, No. CLXVII, December, 1848, pp. 82-99) Today we recognize ourselves in the protagonist without hesitation, for what comes naturally to the unbroken spirit of Jane Eyre comes naturally to all of us; it resonates with the human condition (except, perhaps, for the condition of Victorian literary critics). There is much more that could be said in regard to Victorian attitudes to defiance, especially among children, but I will save this for an addendum.
Defiance as a Moral Emotion
Our conventional idea of an emotion as something that we passively experience — emotions were traditionally called passions because they are affects that we suffer, and not actions that we take — is utterly inadequate to account for an emotion like defiance, which is as much action as passion. At least part of the active nature of defiance is its integration with our moral life, which latter is about active engagements with the world. For this reason I would call defiance a moral emotion, and I will develop the idea of moral emotion in the context of emotive naturalism (see below).
Moral emotions are complex, and it scarcely does them justice to call them emotions. The spectrum of emotion ranges from primarily visceral feelings with little or no cognitive content, and indistinguishable from bodily states, to subtle states of mind with little or no visceral feelings associated with them. Some of our emotions are simple and remain simple, but many states of human consciousness that we carelessly write off as emotions are in fact extremely sophisticated human responses that involve the entire person. Robert C. Solomon’s lectures Passions: Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions do an excellent job of drawing out the complexities of how our emotional responses are tied up in a range of purely intellectual concerns on the one hand, and on the other hand almost purely visceral feelings.
Solomon discusses anger, fear, love, compassion, pride, shame, envy, jealousy, resentment, and grief, though he does not explicitly take up defiance. In several posts I have discussed fear (The Philosophy of Fear and Fear of Death), hope (The Structure of Hope and Very Short Treatise on Hope, Perfection, Utopia, and Progress), pride (Metaphysical Pride), modesty (Metaphysical Modesty), and ressentiment (Freedom and Ressentiment), though it could in no sense be said that I have done justice to any of these. The more complex moral emotions are all the more difficult to do justice to; specifically moral emotions such as defiance present a special problem for theoretical analysis.
The positivists of the early twentieth century propounded a moral theory that is known as the emotive theory of ethics, which explicitly sought a reduction of morality to emotion. This kind of reductionism is not as popular with philosophers today, and for good reason. While we would not want to reduce morality to emotion (as the positivists argued), nor to reduce emotions to corporeal sensations (a position sometimes identified with William James), in order to make sense of our emotional and moral lives it may be instructive to briefly consider the origins of emotion and morality in the natural history of human beings. This natural historical approach will help us to account for the relevant evidence without insisting upon reductionism.
What emotions are natural for a human being to feel? What thoughts are natural for a human being to think? What moral obligations is it natural for a person to recognize? All of these are questions that we can reasonably ask about human beings, since we know that human beings feel, think, and behave in accordance with acknowledged obligations. I wrote above that it is natural for one to feel anger over injustice. If you, dear reader, have never experienced this, I would be surprised. No doubt there are individuals who do not, and who never have, experienced anger as a result of injustice, but this is not the typical human response. But the typical “human” response is descended with modification from the typical responses of our ancestors, extending into the past long before modern human beings evolved.
I have elsewhere quoted Darwin on the origins of morality, and I think the idea contained in the following passage cannot be too strongly emphasized:
“The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable — namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts… the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”
Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, CHAPTER III, “COMPARISON OF THE MENTAL POWERS OF MAN AND THE LOWER ANIMALS”
I would go further than Darwin. I would say that animals with intellectual powers less developed than those of humanity might acquire a moral sense, and that we see such a rudimentary moral sense in most social animals, which are forced by the circumstances of lives lived collectively to adopt some kind of pattern of behavior that makes it possible for group cohesion to continue.
There are many species of social animals that live in large groups that necessitate rules of social interaction. Indeed, we even know from paleontological evidence that some species of flying dinosaurs lived in crowded rookeries (there is fossil evidence for this at Loma del Pterodaustro in Argentina), so that we can derive the necessity of some form of social interaction among residents of the rookery. Many of these social animals have very little in the way of intellectual powers, such as in the case of social insects, but there are also many mammal species, all part of the same adaptive radiation of mammals that followed the extinction of the dinosaurs and of which we are a part, and constituting the sentience-rich biosphere that we have today. Social mammals add to the necessity of social rules for group interactions an overlay of emotive responses. Already in groups of social mammals, then, we begin to see a complex context of social interaction and emotional responses that cannot be isolated one from the other. With the emergence human intellectual capacity, another overlay makes this complex context of social interaction more tightly integrated and more subtle than in prior social species.
I call these deep evolutionary origins of human emotional responses to the world emotive naturalism, but I could just as well call it moral naturalism — or indeed, intellectual naturalism, because by the time human beings emerge in history emotions, morality, and cognition are all bound up in each other, and to isolate any one of these would be to falsify human experience.
Being and Emotion
While the philosophy of emotion is usually discussed in terms of philosophy of mind or philosophical psychology, I usually view philosophical problems through the lens of metaphysics, and the active nature of defiance as a moral emotion gives us an especially interesting case for examining the nature of our emotional and moral being-in-the-world. This accords well with what Robert Solomon argued in the lectures cited above, which characterize emotions as engagements with the world. What is it to be engaged with the world?
My framework for thinking about metaphysics is a definition of being that goes back all the way to Plato, which I discussed in Extrapolating Plato’s Definition of Being (and which I further elaborated in Agents and Sufferants). Plato held that being is the power to affect or to be affected, i.e., to act or to be acted upon. From this starting point we can extrapolate four forms be being, such that non-being is to neither act nor be acted upon, the fullness of being is to both act and be acted upon, while narrower forms of being involve acting only without being acted upon, or being acted upon only without acting. One may think of these four permutations of Plato’s definition of being as four modalities of engagement with the world.
An interesting example of metaphysical engagement with the world in terms of a moral emotion radically distinct from defiance is to be found with our engagements with the world mediated by love. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in Sermon 50 of his Sermons on the Song of Songs wrote, “Love can be a matter of doing or of feeling.” In other words, love can be active or passive, acting or being acted upon. St. Bernard goes on to give several illuminating examples that develop this theme.
How does the moral emotion of defiance specifically fit into this framework of engagements with the world? We typically employ the term “defiance” when an individual’s circumstances severely constrain their ability to respond, as was the case with Nadiya Savchenko, who was incarcerated and who therefore was prevented from the ordinary freedom of action enjoyed by those of us who are not incarcerated. Nevertheless, she was able to remain defiant even while in prison, and under such circumstances the emotion itself becomes a response. (The reader who is familiar with Sartre’s thought will immediately recognize the connection with Sartre’s theory of emotion; cf. The Emotions: Outline of a Theory) This may sound like a paltry form of “action,” but if it contributes to the differential survival of the individual, defiance has a selective advantage, as it almost certainly must. Defiant individuals have not given up, and they continue to fight despite constrained circumstances.
The Social Context of Defiance
The survival value of belief in one’s existential choices, which I discussed in Confirmation Bias and Evolutionary Psychology, is exemplified by defiance. Defiance, then, has the ultimate evolutionary sanction: it is a form of confirmation bias — belief in oneself, and in one’s own efficacy — that contributes to the individual’s differential survival. As such, defiance as a moral emotion is selected for and is likely disproportionately represented in human nature because of the selective advantage it possesses. As a feature of human nature, we must reckon with defiance as a socially significant emotion, i.e., an emotion that shapes not only individuals, but also societies.
While we do not often explicitly talk about the role of defiance in human motivation, I believe it is one of the primary springs to action in the human character. Looking back over a lifetime of conversations occurring in the ordinary business of life (for I am an old man now and I can speak in this idiom), I am struck by how often individuals express their displeasure at pressures being brought to bear upon them, and they usually respond by pushing back. This “pushing back” is defiance. Typically, the other side then pushes back in turn. This is the origin of tit-for-tat strategies. Individuals push back when pressured, as do social wholes and political entities. Those that push back most successfully, i.e., the most defiant among them, are those that are most likely to have descendants and to pass their defiance on to the next generation of individuals or social wholes.
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